1989 was a big year for sweeping cultural change. The Tiananmen Square protests happened in June. The Berlin Wall came down in November. Neil Young recorded “Rockin' in the Free World” to celebrate. (So did Jesus Jones with “Right Here, Right Now,” but it's better we don't speak about that.)
I was just a dopey fifteen year old trying to figure out how to talk to girls (man, if I had a time machine the first thing I'd do is do back and slap myself across the face and shout “you idiot! You don't see that Kimmy Goldwasser is totally hot for you? How are you not picking up on that you colossal moron!!??!) but I was enough of a history dweeb to be really excited by Eastern Europe's transition from totalitarian Communism. That and it meant that an atomic bomb may not drop on us at any moment. Growing up in the 1980s meant being reasonably sure that some time this week Reagan would goad the Commies into killing us all.
My point is that when smaller Eastern Bloc countries switched sides I probably was aware, but not all of these changes got the play that they deserved. I'll admit a little ignorance here: I've gone my whole life without investigating just how things went down in Romania. Three Days Til Christmas is here to show knuckleheads like me just how fucked up it was.
In the span of about one month Nicolae Ceausescu, who'd been the head of state for twenty-two years, went from a national celebration involving streamers, trumpets and children singing songs of praise to clutching a satchel on a country road and wheezing while running for his life.
Three Days Til Christmas mixes documentary footage and some talking heads but is predominately a reenactment of Dec 22, 1989 when Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled the capital in a helicopter until (spoiler alert?) the 25th, when they were swiftly gunned down by a firing squad. Much like Olivier Hirschbiegel's Downfall, Three Days Til Christmas gains most of its traction through the surface business. First the helicopter needs to find a secure town in which to land. Next they need to find loyalists that will hide the elderly couple. A town with a Ceausescu-sponsored factory ought to be the place, but the workers attack them. Then they run out gas and have to hijack a car. Then they need to find a wing of the army willing to protect them. All the while the national radio has been overrun by rebels and wave after wave of reports (some true, some not, and some intentionally so) determine where they go.
Front and center are Nicolae and Elena, deliciously portrayed as out of touch and downright evil. Constantin Cojocaru's mean dictator is spitting, nasty and cruel. Elena is only a tiny bit more sympathetic, coming across more like a disappointed mother. “After all we've done for them?” she cries as the people call for their heads. There's not too much sympathy, though – she gets a quality “let them eat cake” moment, though since this is Eastern Europe it's salami instead.
Three Days Til Christmas takes for granted that its audience is aware of some of the Ceausescus' atrocities. The soldiers make passing references to “all our friends died” and there are murmurings of ethnic clashes. The widespread poverty is certainly clear, thought, and in stark contrast to Elena's fur coat.
It's abundantly evident that these were not nice people, so seeing them race like refugees on no sleep and without their medicine certainly falls under the category of cosmic comeuppance. The film takes a twist toward the end when the new voices of power (all documentary footage) begins to fracture. There is disinformation about bands of terrorists and possible foreign intervention. Despite announcements saying no blood is being sheds, later investigation proved this to be false.
The last act of the film is dedicated to the Ceausescus' swift behind-closed-doors trial and immediate execution. Notoriously, no footage of the killing actually exists. (Someone forgot to charge the camera batteries, goes the official story.) Three Days Til Christmas does the unimaginable and actually makes you feel sorry for the couple toward the end. You can call the method with which the Ceausescus were dispatched a number of things, but justice and due process are unlikely to be at the top.
The film would be much better without the interruption from the talking heads, even if they were witnesses represented in the meat of the film. It is still striking, however, just how recent this went down, and in a country whose culture is not completely alien to our own. It proves how even the most powerful individuals are not immune to the tides of history.
Three Days Til Christmas is playing at Lincoln Center's Romanian Film spotlight from November 29 – December 5. No word yet on further distribution.